Music » Music Features

Story in Song

Stellar Southern songwriter Jason Isbell on his craft.



Live from Alabama, the first concert album from Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, is bookended by two very different versions of the same story. "Tour of Duty" kicks things off with the tale of a soldier returning to his small town. It's not specific in its setting, nor is it triumphant. But the song is cautiously celebratory as Isbell evokes the soldier's jittery nerves as he tries to make himself at home: "I promise not to bore you with my stories/I promise not to scare you with my tears," he sings. "I never would exaggerate the glory/I'll seem so satisfied here."

Later on the tracklist, Isbell performs "Dress Blues," a standout track from his 2007 solo debut, Sirens of the Ditch. It's a very different homecoming from the one he describes on "Tour of Duty": The soldier is returning home for burial. "Dress Blues" is mournful without being manipulative, funereal without being dour. "Mamas and grandmamas love you/American boys hate to lose," Isbell sings by way of a eulogy. "You never planned on the bombs in the sand or sleepin' in your dress blues."

Despite the heightened emotions that necessarily accompany the subject matter, neither of these songs is especially concerned with the politics of military spending or foreign policy. They're not anti-war songs or protest anthems. Rather, they're about the real people who go to war and how they return. Because Isbell maintains such a disciplined and ultimately compassionate focus on the character rather than on any particular cause, "Tour of Duty" and "Dress Blues" hit hard. Their placement on Live from Alabama grants the album an emotional heft greater than anything he's done since he left the Drive-By Truckers five years ago.

"I try to write as much as I can about the effects that war has on people and their communities back home," Isbell says. "I understand that a little bit better than I understand actually being at war, since I've never done that. It's hard for me to put myself in that place. But I do know what it means for a small town to lose somebody or to try to adjust to kids coming home."

As much a storyteller as he is a songwriter, Isbell majored in fiction writing at the University of Memphis, where he learned the basic tenets of how (and why) to tell a story. He also immersed himself in the work of writers both literary and musical — not just William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Barry Hannah, but Randy Newman, Bruce Springsteen, and James McMurtry as well. While some writers go straight from college to an MFA program, Isbell joined the Drive-By Truckers, which taught him the importance of setting, tone, and — most important of all — character.

"If you're writing a story-song, you have to create a character and let that character behave as he or she naturally would," he explains. "They will do some squirrelly things on you, but that's the only way to portray them with precision. Ultimately, it's not what they're about but who they're about."

Live from Alabama closes a year of hard touring for Isbell, during which he and the 400 Unit traveled almost constantly. In February, he'll start recording his fourth studio album, after which he's getting married. Such a busy schedule doesn't leave much time to write fiction; most of Isbell's creative energy is channeled into writing songs.

"I still practice those things and try to keep myself fresh," he says. "But pretty much everything lately is going to be in song form, because I need all the songs I can get."

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit will play the Hi-Tone Café on Thursday, December 20th. Show starts at 8 p.m. $15.

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